Diversity Takes a Back Seat to Economy

‘Last hired, first fired’ maxim often adversely affects journalists of color and women.

As the nation’s economy takes a tumble to who knows where, it should come as no surprise that the news industry is suffering along with other U.S. businesses. The ripple effects are also starting to show in journalism education programs around the country. And, as has often been the case, the effects upon people of color are being felt in profound ways.

The weakening economy has revived a maxim known all too well by minorities in the work force: “last hired, first fired.” But in the latest version of that truism, it would be more accurate to state that the last hired will be the first to be laid off. This has become especially true among news organizations that are governed by union rules; rules that protect those with the greatest seniority. And those with seniority are generally White males.

While it is understandable that unions would impose such a rule, the perhaps unintended consequences are that those who were hired under aggressive and necessary affirmative action policies would be the ones with the least amount of seniority. Hence, the younger media professionals with the least amount of tenure are often journalists of color and women.

In their efforts to stem the tide of rising costs and diminishing profits, media managers and administrators have naturally looked to a reduction in force to maintain the stability of their enterprises. News organizations have gone into a full survival mode with more work being distributed among smaller staffs. As a result, many younger journalists of color find themselves facing a challenging future in which they will be the first victims of staff reductions. Those that manage to hang on to their positions are usually employed at nonunion shops where the lower salaries earned by younger staffers saves them temporarily from the axe of budget reductions.

These grim prospects come in the face of the latest figures from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in their annual survey of newsroom employment around the country. For the last three years, the growth of minority employment has slowed to a trickle. In the latest survey released this year, minority employment grew from 13.4 percent to 13.5 percent — a growth so small as to be insignificant.

According to ASNE’s annual census, the number of all full-time journalists working in U.S. daily newspapers actually shrank by 4.4 percent in the past year, the largest decrease in the past 30 years. The survey also revealed that the total number of minority journalists employed at daily newspapers declined by nearly 300, which follows the pattern for the overall newsroom work force. If such a trend continues, ASNE’s goal of employment parity with the minority population by 2025 will not be reached.

Similar figures exist for companion media industries such as broadcasting where similar layoffs are taking place. The “X” factor lies in future employment trends, as affected by the revamping of U.S. media to reflect changing viewer and reader habits and the use of technology. But what are media educators to make of these disturbing trends? And will a stated commitment from journalism educators to “diversify” student enrollment in mass communication programs continue, in light of media industry changes?

The Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication includes diversity among its various standards for accrediting journalism programs nationwide. The diversity standard tries to go beyond mere quantification of minority percentages in school enrollments. The standard also addresses issues of the quality of education for journalism students as it pertains to diversity issues. Does a program address such issues? Are such issues an integral part of the curriculum? Are the faculty and staff themselves diverse in their ethnic, racial and gender composition? These and other particulars of the diversity standard are laudable.

Yet, the reality is that no journalism program in the nation has ever lost its accreditation because of noncompliance with the diversity standard. And in light of recent trends, it would appear that the diversity mandate is diminishing in importance as journalism programs also struggle with the burdens of the weak economy and budget cuts.

Academia is no different from the media industry and other businesses when it comes to the “last hired, first fired (first laid off)” maxim. In academia, the term is labeled in other ways such as “tenure denial” or “nonrenewal of term contract.” Often the junior faculty is where you will find the greatest percentage of minority faculty and staff hires. A growing retrenchment in journalism education means that many minority faculty members, who often are the standard-bearers for diversity initiatives, are the first to be ushered out the door.

The result is a lack of true commitment to diversity. Minority faculty members are often the ones who perform the day-today tasks of recruitment and retention of students of color — tasks that ultimately, despite vehement denials to the contrary, carry little weight when it comes to promotion and tenure.

It remains to be seen whether education administrators will follow the same trend being followed by their media brethren.

— Ramòn Chàvez, a founder of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and former dean of the American Indian Journalism Institute, is director of the Oklahoma Institute for Diversity in Journalism at the University of Oklahoma.

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